Supporters Undeterred As N.H. House Votes Down Local Rights Constitutional Amendment

Mar 16, 2018

Supporters of the community rights amendment watch as the state House of Representatives debates their proposal Thursday.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

The state House has again rejected a bid to give New Hampshire towns more control over their own environmental protections – but advocates of the constitutional amendment say they're making progress.

Organizer Michelle Sanborn with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund says the House barely debated the proposal the first time around, in 2016.

So she's encouraged by Thursday’s House vote of 217 to 112 against it.

"One third of the House supported elevating the right of New Hampshire people... basically to pass laws protecting health, safety and welfare of individuals but also their communities and natural environments above corporate activities that harm them,” she says.

As in most states, New Hampshire's legislature must grant towns all their governing powers – a system known as Dillon's Rule. Opponents say the amendment would create too much of the opposite, known as home rule, which allows more local freedom to govern.

Sanborn says this year's debate already has more towns interested in passing their own environmental laws, to protect against big energy developments or water quality threats. The amendment would help those laws stand up in court.

“The New Hampshire constitution is very clear about where the power originates, and that is with the people,” she says. “I think that awareness is growing and taking root in people.” 

She says she was also pleased to have support this year from legislators outside of towns affected by issues the amendment addresses.

Her organization hopes to campaign for the amendment again next year. They say it’s the first community rights constitutional amendment to reach a state legislature.

"If we've learned anything from prior people's movements, it's that fundamental change comes from persistent, unrelenting pressure," Sanborn says. 

The legislature isn't their only option to push the proposal in New Hampshire. Every 10 years, the state votes on whether to hold an open constitutional convention.

It's happened just five times since 1793, and comes up next in 2022.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the vote total on the amendment as 271 to 112. In fact, it was 217 to 112.